Shipping magnate Clifton Waller Barrett (1901–1991) was set upon his collecting course in 1940 by collector and bibliographer Carroll Atwood Wilson, who convinced him to stop "dallying with high spots…and become a dedicated collector of American literature."
Around this time, Barrett received an encouraging letter from James Southall Wilson, chair of the English Department at his alma mater, the University of Virginia. Alderman Library had just been built, and it boasted a stately paneled room housing a remarkable collection of primary and reference sources on early American history bequeathed by Detroit philanthropist Tracy W. McGregor. Barrett seized upon the idea of furnishing a room opposite with an equally worthy collection of American literature. "I had a plan influenced by one Wilson and a purpose inspired by another," he later remarked.
The original Barrett Room was dedicated in 1960 at a ceremony attended by poet Robert Frost, whom Barrett had befriended and collected assiduously. By the time of Barrett's death in 1991, his overall collection had grown to approximately 35,000 volumes and 112,000 manuscripts. With the opening of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library in 2004, the contents of the Barrett Library were moved and the new reading room was fittingly named in Barrett's honor.
Taking Lyle Wright's bibliographies of American fiction as a guidebook, Barrett collected all fiction, poetry, drama, and essays published by an American author in book form from the American Revolution through 1875. For the period 1875–1950, he gathered first and important editions of every major American writer and hundreds of lesser ones. To complement the printed works, he added stores of literary manuscripts and correspondence.
The Barrett Library includes many outstanding features, among them an inscribed presentation copy of William Hill Brown's Power of Sympathy (1789) that establishes the authorship of what is widely regarded the first American novel, scarce copies of the earliest known novels by African-Americans, the earliest surviving manuscripts of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and the original manuscripts of Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The library continues to grow though ongoing acquisitions. All printed items are cataloged, and finding aids for manuscript and archival materials have been published for dozens of significant authors, including Susanna (Haswell) Rowson, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Henry James, Willa Cather, and others, with more guides in preparation.
The subject of several exhibitions and catalogs, the Barrett Library has provided the substance for many more. Barrett items are featured regularly in instructional presentations and Web projects, such as the Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture multimedia archive. The Barrett Library has also supplied the raw materials for numerous critical works, bibliographies, and dissertations. Visiting fellowships are now available for short-term research residencies. With support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, some 444 titles from the Barrett Library have been fully digitized and made available through ProQuest's Early American Fiction 1789-1875.
Collection Profile and Overview: Christian Dupont
Illustrations: University of Virginia Library staff